Death Toll Rises To 166
Australia's prime minister said if arsonists are responsible for the devastating wildfires that have roared through the state of Victoria, then it amounts to "mass murder."
Police in Victoria said the death toll has reached 166 people.
Officials said 60-mph winds and temperatures as high as 117 degrees Fahrenheit sped the fires and touched off panic.
Investigators said arsonists may have set some of the 400 fires or helped them jump containment lines.
The fires have sparked a royal commission, which is among the highest-level investigations that can be called under Australian law.
Officials have already warned that anyone found guilty of lighting a wildfire that led to someone's death is facing 25 years to life in prison.
Viewed from the air, vast stretches of the landscape were blackened, with entire forests reduced to leafless, charred trunks. Bodies could be seen lying in the street of one town.
Victoria police Commissioner Christine Nixon said authorities were finding bodies in cars crashed on the side of roads. She said it looks like people did not have enough time to escape in some cases.
At least 750 homes have been destroyed in the fires that, in some cases, have leveled entire towns.
Wildfire Survivors Speak
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said there will be immediate emergency aid for the survivors. The army was being deployed to help out, and millions of dollars will be sent to Victoria, where all of the deaths have occurred.
One man told Sky News: "It rained fire." Other witnesses said they watched trees explode and ash rain down.
The deadly wildfires came so quickly, some survivors said they only had time to dive for cover.
One man said he leapt into his pool as flames roared over his house. His home was left unscarred, while a neighbor's house burned to the ground.
Another woman said she and her children crawled into a wombat's burrow.
For Mark Strubing, it was a drainage pipe that saved him. He told Australia's Nine Network television news that he and a companion rolled in water at the bottom of the pipe to get their clothing wet as flames licked the pipe.
Jack Barber of Kinglake said he, his wife and a neighbor had a fire plan that amounted to: "Get the hell out of there."
They packed birth certificates, insurance documents, two cats, four kittens and a dog into two cars and tried to outrun it. But with their route blocked by downed power lines, they found themselves dodging flames for three hours in a cricket ground.
Rudd called it "an appalling tragedy for the nation." And he told Nine Network television that if any of the deadly fires were set, "There are no words to describe it other than mass murder."
Australia's previous deadliest fires were in 1983, when blazes killed 75 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes in Victoria and South Australia.